Photo Finish

The wall screens blazed with blinding speed as Pat “The Jack” O’Brien and Merlcon the Merciless vied for first place in the Trans-Galactic Scramble. The patrons of Heddie’s Sports Bar shouted over one another as the Jack edged ahead.

Annie Worlitzer sat alone in a corner, watching the commotion and sipping an expensive wine.

“Merlcon’s got it in the bag!” roared one of the many inebriated men.

“The Jack’ll make him eat it. Earthers always win!”

“Except last year,” snorted another. “And the year before that.”

On screen, Merlcon’s red needle of a ship released a mechanical arm from one of its bays. Its claw gripped the Jack’s sleek racer and used the Jack’s momentum to save fuel for the last stretch.

“That’s illegal!”

“Illegal?” scoffed another. “And what your boy Jack did on day three wasn’t?”

Another man, happily drunk, leaned close to Annie. “So, who’s your money on, hun?”

“Dr. Ivan Zaxskonovich.”

The man stared stupidly at her, then at the wall screens. “Dr. Z hasn’t been seen in two days. Probably dead after that incident on Omicron 8.”

“I have followed the race carefully. I have placed a large sum of money on Dr. Zaxskonovich. He will win.”

The announcers’ frantic voices rose to apoplectic heights. Merlcon’s ship tumbled across the desert landscape in a controlled crash. After a moment, his engines fired and he raced to close the gap.

“EMP bomb,” Annie explained. “Everyone knows that to survive this race, you must be clever. Every world holds new obstacles, and the Board lets anything go as long as it’s good for ratings, even if it breaks a few planetary treaties. The Scramble’s a test of fortitude, but more than that, it’s a test of brains.”

“Quiet!” the man hissed. The screens showed the multitudes at the finish line. Numbers flashed across the lower third of the screen—distance left, estimated seconds until each racer crossed the finish line, distance between the racers. The ships were surrounded by smoke and ray beams and mechanical contraptions as they fought each other off. Their engines flared—they spun and weaved around the final barriers, large reptiles that pounced on anything that moved.

Ten seconds. The patrons leaded forward, their cheers shaking the tables and walls, overwhelming even the cries of the announcers as they shouted at the top of their lungs.

Five seconds. Merlcon pulled ahead.

Three seconds. The Jack slid beneath his opponent, skimming the ground.

One second…

Wreckage and a storm of dust enveloped the finish line. The bar became deathly silent. The lead announcer struggled to regain his voice. “And…I can’t believe…we’ll look at the view from the infrared. It’s on the screen. You can see them come in, neck-and-neck…. Did I just—did I just see that?”

The dust was clearing. A third vehicle appeared among the wreckage. The infrared replay repeated the last seconds over and over.

“Dr. Z—his ship shot out of the ground—apparently it had been burrowing all this time…”

“Can he do that?” asked the second announcer, finally chiming in.

Annie stood. “I’m going to collect my winnings,” she said. “Believe me, when my grandfather says he’ll do a thing, he’ll do it.” She handed the forlorn man near her a small bill. “Buy something to drown out the feeling of defeat.” She walked primly away.

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